Moneyball, The Help, and the Oscars
This post is a part of the “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I am a cinephile. As such, I see a lot of movies and the Oscars are one of my favorite times of the year. For the past few Oscar seasons, going into the big night, I have made it a goal to see all of the best picture nominees. Because I do spend so much time at the movies, and the Oscars highlight the best of the best, this goal is usually not difficult for me. For example, last year I only had not seen one movie at the point of the nomination announcements. So this year, I was stunned when many of the nominated movies where films that I had passed on seeing, chiefly beucase I had no interest.
Two of these movies were Moneyball and The Help, which I passed on for different reasons. However, this weekend in order to reach my goal by Oscar night, my partner and I rented both. The more that I mull them over, the more that I can’ t help but feel that these two movies are emblematic of bigger issues in Hollywood.
Before I jump into my bigger thoughts, I’d like to give some background as to why I didn’t see these films in the first place. The reasons for Moneyball are simple. I’m not a sports person. I don’t really dig sports stories. I can get into a sports movie, if it is one that develops its characters and has a story line which is broad enough to appeal to a lay audience. (In other words, it can’t assume that I know or care about the sport. We’re talking The Sandlot or A League of Their Own.) From the looks of Moneyball, this wasn’t the case. So I passed.
The Help was entirely a different situation. I first because aware of the story in 2009 when the book shot to popularity. I was at first intrigued, as all of the feedback I received was that it was so good. However, a counter voice emerged which proclaimed that the story was another case of the “great white savior.” My interest waned, but before long the book was picked up for a movie deal. The movie gained even more steam than the book, with various critics simultaneously proclaiming it as both “…entertaining, touching and perhaps even a bit healing…an old-fashioned grand yarn of a film, the sort we rarely get these days” and ” glib and insufficient, a Barbie Band-Aid on the still-raw wound of race relations in America.”
The more I read about The Help in feminist circles, the less I wanted to see it. As Reninaj said at the Crunk Feminist Collective,
By centering White women as actors in the civil rights movement, we mask, hide and erase the work of Black men and women, and we negate the ways in which WOMEN were treated in many instances like “The Help” in Black and White organizing circles.
The reasons to not see it outweighed the reasons to see it. But then came the nominations, and I knew I’d be biting the bullet soon. A few days before I actually saw the film myself, I was passed along a piece by Toure at TIME in which he said,
I don’t see any of The Help’s journey as pleasurable for anyone: black women are oppressed and fight back in a passive-aggressive way. (Black men are all but invisible in this world.) Whites are mostly evil, or else sheep: soulless and brainless. It’s a Lifetime-y simplistic movie, a Disneyfication of segregation, with a gross and unintentionally comical stereotype parade marching through it.
That’s some brilliant wordsmithing there: “The Disneyfication of segregation.” And having seen the film myself now, I couldn’t have said it better.
But let’s back up to my central point. I watched Moneyball and The Help this past weekend quite literally back-to-back. Doing so made one thing abundantly clear to me (as if I didn’t already know) it’s way easier to be a white dude in Hollywood than a black gal. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but Moneyball and The Helpjust so perfectly illustrate it.
When I was watching Moneyball, I was bored. I think that Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are good actors, but to me, their roles in this film were not challenging or anything special. I was literally baffled how they were nominated and really, the only conclusion I could come to was that they’re famous white dudes telling a male focused story.
In The Help, on the other hand, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis’ performances were amazing. They were compelling and moving in a movie that otherwise did not appeal to me. While their acting nominations feel deserved, the film itself, with its “Disneyfication of segregation” seems to affirm that the Academy likes a story with a “great white savior.” It was, after all, only two years ago that Sandra Bullock won best actress for The Blindside, a film in which the real life Michael Oher has said downplayed the personal knowledge her brought into it, in order to tell a story.
But here’s where the intersection of sexism and racism really hits a fever pitch: think about the role options available to Pitt and Hill this past year. Pitt was in another best picture nominated film, Tree of Life, and Hill had a leading role in the comedy, The Sitter. Spencer and Davis, on the other hand only minor supporting roles or small independent projects outside of The Help in 2011 and 2010.
It can be easy to say that these women shouldn’t have participated in a film which centers the civil rights movement on a white female experience. But the problem isn’t Davis or Spencer individually. The problem is a system which pushes forward only a few high profile roles for African American women and then, of those sparse roles, the theme is the perpetuation of stereotypes. The problem is a system which makes women of color work much harder than their white counterparts to be recognized. The problem is an Academy which displays a predilection for implicitly reinforcing the status quo. The problem is the knee jerk reaction to say that the real racists are those who analyze race messages in the media. The problem is a vast general public which mindlessly consumes at a “heart warming” tale, doesn’t analyze the deeper messages, and financially supports the exclusion of diverse voices.
Basically, the problem is racism.